Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England[1]

This paper was delivered by Jim Belshaw to the University of New England’s Classics and History Seminar Series, Armidale Friday 19 March 2010.

In recognition of the topic of this paper as well as our location, I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the Land. I would also like to pay respect to the Elders past and present of this Land and of all New England’s Aboriginal peoples. My hope is that they will find some value in my work.

This paper follows my personal journey in attempting to write a history of the broader New England. I will talk a little about names and naming later. For the present, I simply note that when I talk about the broader New England, I mean the Northern Tablelands and its surrounding rivers to the north, south, west and east.

I say unrecognised, because the area that I am talking about has no formal identity. You will not find it on any map. I say now almost unknown, because the tides of history, and of fashions in the writing of history, have overtaken the area, its interests and activities. Things once considered important have been increasingly relegated to a sentence, a footnote, or just ignored.

As will become very clear, I have a direct personal interest in all this because of my own history and that of my family. In some ways, I think of my work as somewhat akin to an archaeological rescue dig, trying to recover a past before modern constructions destroy it entirely!

This leads to obvious problems of selection, perception and bias in my research and writing. The topic I have selected, and the initial questions I asked of the evidence, reflect my own past, interests and values. Further, at a personal level and especially on my New England Australia blog[2] and in my weekly column in the Armidale Express, I am still a partisan player, sometimes using history to explain and support particular positions.

To manage the obvious conflict created by my interests, perceptions and approach and my role as a historian, I try to make my personal biases clear up front. I also try to be professional in my practice of the historical craft. By this, I mean simply that I try to be objective in my approach to the evidence and to ensure that the things that I say are properly referenced, so that others can check and, as appropriate, refute my inevitable errors of fact and judgement.


I first became interested in writing a history of the broader New England while doing my honours years in history at the University of New England in 1966. This was a very different world.

The Cold War was still in full swing. Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. Jobs were plentiful. The social changes that would make the 1970s such a tip decade, a break with the past, were underway, but undergraduate students at the University of New England still wore gowns and were expected to dress properly. In the case of men, the rules prescribed coat and tie as well as gown. One of my student colleagues did just that, wear a tie, coat and gown to lectures. Fortunately, he did add underpants to the list! The main student issue on campus was room visiting, with students campaigning en masse to overturn a decision of the University Council banning visits by members of the opposite sex in the Colleges[3].

At local and regional level, the New England New State Movement was in the middle of Operation Seventh State, the campaign that would culminate in the 1967 plebiscite. The loss of that plebiscite on the votes of the dairying, mining and industrial interests of the lower Hunter still lay ahead.

I had always been a new state supporter, in large part because of my grandfather, David Drummond. Drummond had first become involved with the movement for self government while working as a manager on a share farm basis on Maxwelton, a wheat block near Inverell[4]. He remained a supporter over a long career in State and Federal Parliament that stretched from 1920 to 1963.

I first became actively involved with the New England New State Movement in 1961 when, at my grandfather’s request, I acted as an usher at the 1961 Armidale convention that launched Operation Seventh State. This was a very big meeting and very exciting to a sixteen years old wearing his first suit! When I started at the University of New England in 1963, I carried my new state enthusiasms with me. During first year, I helped form the University of New England New State Society and became foundation president. I became the Society’s representative on the Movement’s Executive and remained a member until leaving Armidale early in 1967.

Despite this involvement, it wasn’t the fight for self government that first made me want to write a history of New England. That desire came from another source entirely.

In 1963 as a first year undergraduate I enrolled in History I. The History Department was a remarkably strong department for what was still a relatively small institution. The first year history course provided a general introduction beginning with archaeology and prehistory, a segment largely taught by Isabel McBryde, supported by Mary Neely (later Dolan). This focus on archaeology and prehistory was unusual, since prehistory itself was quite a new field. John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga note that the first book on world prehistory and one of our texts, Grahame Clarke’s World Prehistory, was only published in 1961[5]. Isabel’s own appointment in 1960 in Prehistory and Ancient History was the first such entitled position in Australia[6].

In addition to her pioneering teaching work, the distinctive thing about Isabel’s approach lay in her regional focus. As Mulvaney and Kamminga point out, because so little was known about Australian prehistory, the standard approach was to select sites that had deep cultural deposits, regardless of location. Isabel took a different view. To her mind, variations in geography and culture meant that prehistoric Aboriginal life could only be understood through regional examination.

A number of us quickly became involved with Isabel’s studies, in part because of interest, in part because running around the country side in Land Rovers was simply fun! In 1966, our group became the first to do a full year archaeology and Australian prehistory course as part of the history honours program.

My own thesis involved a study of traditional Aboriginal economic life through the ethnographic evidence – explorer’s reports, early settler records, ethnographic studies[7]. To set a geographic boundary for the study, I chose the boundaries adopted by the New England New State Movement, those recommended by the 1935 Nicholas Royal Commission as the area suitable for self government[8], although I did go outside those boundaries where it seemed appropriate. I chose those boundaries in part because of political sentiment, in part because it seemed to make sense in geographic terms, allowing me to look at the impact of geography on life across a varied but geographically linked entity.

In some ways, the thesis was a bit of an odd one for a history department because it combined geography, economics and history, using geography to provide a base, while utilising analytical structures from economics to ask questions of the evidence, drawing out some of the depth and patterns of traditional Aboriginal economic life.

It was while sitting in the Mitchell Library reading the early records that I decided that I would like to write a history of New England beginning in Aboriginal times. My thought was to start from an Aboriginal perspective, then look at invasion, before switching to the other side of the frontier. Looking at the records, I thought that it might be possible to do a more detailed study than had been attempted before.

Events intervened, including my move to Canberra and a career switch from history and prehistory to economics. I will talk in a little while about the later re-ignition of my interest in the project. At this point, I want to use the work of Isabel McBryde as one prism to extend my discussion on some of the threads within New England’s history.

Impact of the University of New England on regional thought

While there have been a number of studies that do look at specific aspects of regional thought[9], I am not aware of any general studies examining the contribution of regional thought to the overall history of Australian thought. Yet the evidence that I have seen suggests that there were considerable regional variations in thought that fed back into the broader pattern of Australian life and thought, including politics. Certainly, that was the case within New England.

At the time Isabel was appointed to the University of New England, it was just twenty two years since the formation of the New England University College, seven years since UNE had gained its autonomy.

Those agitating for the formation of the new university college saw its role in regional terms: this was to be the Sydney University of the North. To this end, the College was to support Northern development by bringing science and education to bear upon Northern problems. In 1920 the first New State manifesto, Australia Subdivided, put the problem this way: In Northern New South Wales, a few high schools, no technical schools, no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area[10].

The academic staff coming to the new College and then the University had a varied background, but shared the ideal of the founders about the role of a university as a centre of teaching and learning in the English tradition. However, they also came from a very different world: the culture shock was enormous and deserves a section of the history in its own right. For the moment, I will simply point to a few important features.

Armidale may have been a significant education centre, but in 1938 it still only had a population of perhaps 7,000[11] and was a long way from the major centres staff had known. Further, 1938 was a drought year, so the town that greeted the College’s new staff was dry and dusty, far removed from the green city we know today. My father, who was to lecture in history and economics and was the first staff member to arrive, later recalled that his first reaction was to catch the train back!

Armidale was also marked by a very stratified social structure[12].

John Ferry’s Colonial Armidale describes the progressive emergence of town social structures based on those who had capital and those whose capital was limited[13]. He also describes the process by which social order was established in Armidale, replacing the previous early settler society. This process was not unique to Armidale, but to greater or lesser extent was common across New England: the rise of the town is one theme in New England history; the often bitter rivalries between towns a second. These rivalries divided, preventing common action that might have benefited all[14].

While there were common processes in town formation, the character and culture of towns varied depending upon their history and economic base. Here, two things in combination made Armidale different.

The first was the presence of a more diversified town population because of the city’s role as an educational, religious and administrative centre[15]. The second was Armidale’s role as a grazing centre with well established pastoral families, many of whom were also actively involved in community activities at a local and regional level. This was important and, to a degree, unusual, for the wealth and position of these families often led them to identify with capital city life and beyond to England and Europe.

The Clarence Valley squatter Edward Ogilvie can be taken as an example of the second type[16]. Ogilvie was a fascinating, if difficult, character. He was ten when his father William emigrated to Australia in 1824, taking up land in the Upper Hunter. In 1840, Edward and his brother took up land in the Clarence after a race from the Tablelands against a much larger party guided by former convict Richard Craig. The Ogilvies had asked to join Craig’s party. Denied, they pushed on as fast as possible into unknown country and reached the Clarence at Tabulum ahead of Craig. Edward took up fifty-six miles (90 km) downstream on both sides of the river and later named the runs Yulgilbar.

Edward Ogilvie is quite an important figure in early New England European history. The story of the growth of the Olgilvie empire is an interesting story in its own right. More importantly, Edward Ogilvie’s relations with the Aboriginal peoples were somewhat unusual for the time. At Merton in the Upper Hunter he learned to speak the local dialect, probably a variant of Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi)[17]. Upon arrival in the Clarence he learned to speak the local dialect of Bundjalung, and established formal relations with the local Aboriginal people.

Yet, and this is what is important at this point in our narrative, he had little interest in local activities outside the property itself. Instead, and like his father, he fell in love with Italy and spent as much time there as possible. So far as the Clarence and especially Grafton were concerned, he remained an alien being.

Key local pastoral families on the New England such as the Wrights and Whites were different, for they were involved. This affected the local social hierarchy, creating a grazier/farmer structure to match and interact with town divisions in a variety of complicated ways. The arrival of the academic added to this complexity by adding gown, creating a town/gown/country divide. Many country people found the new arrivals very strange indeed, while the academics themselves had to decide individually how to fit into the place in which they now found themselves.

My own father is a classic example. In 1944 he married Edna Drummond, the new College’s first librarian and eldest daughter of the local member of state parliament, leading to the local Labor party joke that Drummond founded a university to find a husband for his daughter! Yet despite this connection, I had no idea until quite late in his life just how difficult an adjustment it was for him.

At my father’s funeral, Professor Ron Neale described him as the University’s only working class professor. There was some truth in that.

Born in 1908, James Belshaw was the second son of James and Mary Belshaw who had emigrated to Canterbury in New Zealand in 1906 from the industrial world of Wigan in Lancashire[18]. This was a very working class family. His parents had limited formal education, his father had been one of the first Labour councillors in Britain and the family was active in the Primitive Methodist church. In New Zealand, James Belshaw Senior worked in various roles before becoming a Methodist home missioner. It was also a family with a powerful interest in education and a strong sense of social justice.

Given this background, my father struggled with a social structure that reminded him of an English class system that he disliked. He made many good friends, but never forgot his initial reactions. He also, and this is the last point I want to make about the initial culture shock experienced by academic staff, struggled with what he saw as the social conservatism of the broader New England society.

We need to be careful here with our definitions, for the question of what constitutes a conservative or a conservative society is by no means clear cut. What we can say, I think, is that the new College and its staff had to deal with people who were unfamiliar with, and to a degree distrustful of, university education[19].

To manage this problem of children coming into contact with tertiary education for the first time and with parents concerned about the moral well being of their children, first the Armidale Teachers College and then the University College adopted approaches that we would now regard as paternalistic. As an example, in his introduction to Keith Leopold’s memoir on his days at the early University College, John Ryan records this promotional piece from the Lismore Northern Star of 22 November 1940[20]:

No student in residence is permitted to be out after 10 pm without permission and they have to sign the ‘leave book’ when they return.

By now, my discussion must seem a long way from Isabel McBryde, but there is a link in the unique university culture that emerged out of these various forces. The belief of the academic staff in the role of the university as a centre of teaching and learning, in the ideal of a university as an independent entity dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, merged with the ideals of the founders that the university should serve the needs of broader North. To use a modern phrase, the University College and University thought globally, but worked locally.

The meld worked because while the founders themselves thought of this as their institution and were highly protective of it, they also shared the vision of the academics of the university as a place of learning[21]. As the Armidale Express editorialised on the College’s opening: It must not be a superior boarding school for young men and women. Its function is to create, not imitate[22].

Isabel’s personality and approach exactly fitted the University’s culture. The results were quite outstanding for such a small institution[23].

Four years after Isabel’s arrival came the first thesis, Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers.

By 1978, UNE students had written at least 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD in 1967[24], laying the basis for a 1974 book, Aboriginal prehistory in New England[25]. This was followed in 1978 by book of essays, Records of Time Past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes[26] mainly written by her former students. This included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work. The story does not end there, for there were also journal articles and monographs, including her pioneering study with R A Binns, A petrological analysis of ground-edge artefacts from northern New South Wales[27].

The citation for her award in 2003 of the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology justly summarised her work this way:

Her work in New England was remarkable for its extent and depth, and Isabel's examination of the interface of archaeology and ethnography in the region shaped not only the approach taken by many later researchers but also prepared the basis for the arguments about upland regions created by archaeologists such as Sandra Bowdler and Luke Godwin[28].

If we now look at the original plaint from 1920 in Australia Subdivided - no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area - we can see from Isabel’s case just how well the new University College and then University served the original ideas of its founders. Nor, I should add, is this unique to UNE. Both Newcastle and later Southern Cross have also served their immediate areas in the same way, if with a narrower geographic focus. The overall contribution of New England’s colleges and universities is another part of the New England story[29].

The Importance of Geography

The second theme that I want to use Isabel’s work to illustrate is the importance of geography, in so doing also extending our discussion of Aboriginal New England.

In High Lean Country, Wendy Beck notes that Isabel defined her study area in Aboriginal Prehistory in New England as north eastern NSW from the latitude of Tamworth and Kempsey north to the Queensland border and from the coast westwards to the Nandewar Ranges and the western slopes of the Northern Tablelands[30]. She also notes that in another publication, Isabel explains that New England has been interpreted broadly, but generally conforms to the bounds envisaged by the late nineteenth and twentieth century New England New State Movement.

The first point to note about this is that the study area as defined by Isabel in Aboriginal Prehistory in New England is not the same as the new state boundaries recommended by the Nicholas Commission in 1935 and later adopted by the New England New State Movement, for these included the Hunter Valley. The area variously called the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces, the North or New England is a European construct whose boundaries have varied with time. While those variations form part of the history of New England, they were not relevant to the Aborigines who occupied this territory prior to the coming of the Europeans; what was relevant to them was the territory they occupied and their relationships with adjoining groups[31].

In her chapter, Wendy kindly suggests that one James Belshaw mapped the different geographic zones within New England[32]; she includes a map based on part of my original analysis. I included this introductory material on the geography of New England because I knew from my own experience just how important geography was in determining the pattern of life. This is not geographical determinism; other factors can also be important. However, the topics that I was trying to investigate across a varied area such as population distribution and the patterns of seasonal movement were clearly related to geography.

I broke New England into four north-south geographic zones reflecting common usage – the humid coastal strip including the Hunter Valley, the tablelands, western slopes and then western plains. Each zone contained a variety of environments depending on landforms, soil and climate. Climate, for example, varies both east-west and north-south. Within each zone and between zones, you would expect east-west and north-south human interaction. That was indeed the case.

While my primary focus in this section is on Aboriginal New England, European New England was just as affected by geography. As an example, the pattern of yes and no votes at the 1967 new state plebiscite were closely correlated to settlement and transport patterns created during the first decades of European settlement, patterns directly linked to geography[33].

In her discussion of Isabel’s work, Wendy suggested that Isabel conceived of the region under study in a relatively abstract way, rather than consisting, for example, of specific Aboriginal territories[34]. This reflected, in part, the state of knowledge at the time. At that point, there was very little available work on Aboriginal history[35]. The writing that had been done was dominated by anthropologists, prehistorians and ethnographers. The detailed ethnographic and linguistic work required to understand the distribution of the Aboriginal people at the time of European settlement had simply not been completed.

There is a rather sad subtext here. We can take Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) as an example[36]. In 1963, pioneering linguist Arthur Capell reported that up to 50 speakers of the language had been recorded. They were mostly elderly, but possessed considerable knowledge. Noting that Gamilaroi was one of a number of related dialects in North Western NSW, Capell suggested that a comparative study of the whole series of dialects might well be made. By the time that Peter Austin, the scholar who would play such an important role in documenting Gamilaraay, began his studies of the language as an undergraduate in 1972, the majority of these speakers had died.

Against the background of the discussion to this point, we can now turn to review the distribution of New England’s Aboriginal languages at the time of European colonisation. The position here is necessarily a confused one.

To begin with, what was a language? In 1788 there were perhaps 250 Aboriginal language groups in Australia, incorporating perhaps 700 dialects[37]. The precise distinction between language and dialect can be a difficult one. In general, speakers of different dialects within a language group were likely to be able to understand each other, or at least recognise that they spoke different varieties of the same language. However, this was by no means clear cut.

We also need to make a clear distinction between language and political or territorial boundaries[38]. The broad language groups covered substantial areas in geographic terms. There were a variety of shifting territorial and political boundaries within each language group. Just speaking the same or a related language did not make for everlasting friendship.

This added to the confusion that could arise in the minds of European observers as to naming. Quite apart from the varying spellings attached to particular names, those names might be a territorial name attached to a particular group, a name attached by one group to another group, a dialect name.

Michael O’Rourke’s study of the Kamilaroi draws this out very clearly[39]. As an example, he points to the case of the Baradine area north of Coonabaraban which was assigned to both Burrigalu and Gamilaraay languages.

Burrigalu – burrie+galu: literally myall-tree + human plural – meant those who inhabit the myall country or myall dwellers. To O’Rourke’s mind, this was primarily a group or locality name. However, it could also mean the local variant or dialect of a larger language.

In contrast, the name Gamilaraay itself - gamil + array: literally no + having or having gamil for no – denoted a form of speech, the broader language spoken by the Kamilaroi as a whole. Even here, Gamilaraay could describe the language (that speech which has gamil for no) or, by implication, its speakers (those who use gamil for no).

The result is apparently crazy patchworks quilt of names whose exact meaning can be quite unclear. In some cases, we may never be able to resolve the problems. However, a number of general points can be made to clarify what might otherwise seem to be a complex and confusing mess.

The following map taken from the Aboriginal Housing Office web site shows one attempt to map the distribution of Aboriginal languages across NSW[40]. A colleague, John Baker, kindly superimposed the current NSW boundaries on the map. The slight skew comes because the mapping process used specific town locations on the map to determine boundaries; these were not quite exact in geographic terms.

The map should not be treated as definitive. A little later I will discuss some areas where I think that the actual distribution within New England varies from that set out in the map. However, this is not important from the viewpoint of present analysis since we are concerned with overall patterns.


Look first at the state boundaries. You can see how they dissect language groups. With the creation of Queensland, for example, Bundjalung speakers found themselves living in two jurisdictions whose policies towards the Aboriginal peoples varied over time and from each other. These divisions continue today. In January 2007, the Githabul people (a Bundjalung group) reached a native title agreement with the NSW Government[41]. The Queensland Government refused to participate

We now turn to the importance of geography. In their Prehistory of Australia, Mulvaney and Kamminga noted that there had been numerous attempts to map complexes of Aboriginal cultural traits throughout the continent that might help understanding of the major differences in language, social customs, mythology, artistic styles and technology.[42]. To their mind, the 1976 explanation by Nicholas Petersen was the most persuasive.

Petersen observed that major cultural areas corresponded with major drainage basins. He suggested that the reason for this is that the topography and environments of drainage basins tend to be internally uniform, while their margins are relatively poor in plant, animal and water resources. This led to more social interaction between groups living within the basin; much less between groups living on either side of the marginal zones.

Petersen’s conclusions broadly fit with those that I reached in my own earlier work[43]. However, I also suggested that that major geographic regions were important since the close relationship between the Aborigines and their environment meant that the patterns of Aboriginal life varied with changes to that environment. By implication, areas with similar environments were more likely to have commonalities in life and culture.

To the degree that this conclusion is correct, we would expect similarities within New England’s major north-south zones. Indeed, this does seem to have been the case.

If you look now at the bottom of the map, you will see a heavy concentration of languages. These follow the Murray River, a very rich and densely populated Aboriginal area at the time of European colonisation.

On the far left, there are a range of languages - a patchwork quilt - occupying larger territories. These are the languages of the Darling River and western deserts. Like the Murray, the Darling was quite densely populated, although densities were far less. The Darling is simply a smaller river. The variety in the desert languages to the west of the Darling is a factor of distance and small populations; languages and dialects diverged because of distance.

To the right of the Darling, we find the two biggest language groups by area, the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi. They occupied the river valleys flowing to the west from the Great Diving Range. These were quite rich territories; language expansion was facilitated by geography, people could spread.

Overall, the broad sweep of languages along the Western Slopes and Plains, the riverine languages, seem clearly related, merging into the languages of the western deserts. Dividing lines are linked to geography. However the relationship is not an exact one.

Variable rainfall – droughts and floods – is a feature in this area. The Aborigines were not bound to water in the same way as Europeans with their stock and crops. However, during dry periods Aboriginal populations concentrated near water, expanding across land at other times to take advantage of newly available water and food resources. As a consequence, social and to a degree language groupings ran along rivers; language dividing lines could cross catchments.

Along the coast and adjoining ranges, you have another dense distribution. We can think of this in both north-south and east-west terms. North-south languages are directly related to river catchments. The partial exceptions are the Hunter and the Clarence. There is a problem with the Hunter that I will come back to shortly. So far as the Clarence is concerned, the sheer size of the river made it the divide between two very different language groups, the Gumbaynggirr and the Bundjalung. A third Gumbaynggirr related language, Yaygirr, does not appear on the map, but occupied the areas around the mouth of the Clarence.

East-west, there appear to be language shadings inland. In the Hunter Valley, for example, the traditional presentation of language distribution has a coastal language with a linked inland language. The position further north appears somewhat similar. Bainbaa, the language spoken in the headwaters of the Nymboida River (a tributary of the Clarence to the south extending into the Tablelands near Guyra) appears to be a version of Gumbaynggirr.

Tribal groups occupying the Tablelands areas between the Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri and the coastal languages were generally smaller in population because the environment was poorer. They were also squeezed. The map shows the New England Tablelands, the largest tablelands in Australia, with just two language groups.

I said earlier that I thought that the actual distribution of languages varied from that set out in the map. Here I want to mention two of the puzzles that presently concern me.

The first is the Hunter Valley. I think that Michael O’Rourke’s analysis of the evidence shows conclusively that the Kamilaroi occupied territory in the Upper Hunter shown as Geawegal on the map[44]. Further, it also seems clear that some of the five languages shown on the map, a very large number for such a small area, were not languages at all, but territorial names or dialects. This led Amanda Lissarrague to argue for a new geographic title, the Hunter Valley Lake Macquarie language[45].

The second is the Northern Tablelands and especially the relationship between Nganjaywana and Anaiwan. Are they in fact just different names for the same language, different dialects of the same language or different languages? As with the Hunter, I am still working my own way through the evidence, trying to focus on the underlying geography.

Rediscovery of the North

Returning to my personal journey through the history of New England, early in 1967 I left Armidale to take up a position as an administrative trainee with the Commonwealth Public Service Board. At the end of my training year, I was posted to the Commonwealth Treasury at that Department’s request. While I retained my interest in Australian prehistory for a period, I was now working as an economist. This led me to switch to economics, completing my Masters degree in economics at the Australian National University in 1970.

There was a certain irony in this, for I was following in my father’s footsteps. He had come to Armidale as lecturer in history and economics. Forced to choose between the two, he chose economics, with Gordon Greenwood then appointed to lecture in history. The irony lay in the fact that I had sworn not to do economics beyond a third year major because this was my father’s discipline.

There is another small sub-text here that forms part of the social history of New England. Earlier, I spoke of the arrival of the academics in Armidale and of the interaction between them and the existing social order. The siblings as they later came to be known, the children of staff at the University College, formed another sub-group, town while in a sense also gown. It wasn’t always easy being an academic’s child in Armidale’s goldfish bowl, among other things it created expectations at school, and the various children reacted in different ways. My rejection of economics in favour of history was one outcome.

In 1972 I ran for Country Party pre-selection first for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro and then the state seat of Armidale. I was unsuccessful, but became actively involved for a time in the Party at an organisational level and in various groups concerned with Party reform. It was during this period that John Knight and I decided to write a joint biography of my grandfather.

Born in Armidale in 1943[46], John had completed a BA honours at UNE and a MA at Hawaii’s East West Centre. He had also been a Fulbright scholar. In 1965 he had joined the Department of Foreign Affairs, but at the time of our discussion was private secretary to then Opposition Leader Billie Snedden. John’s election to the Senate in 1975 as one of the two senators for the Australian Capital Territory, a position he was to hold until his untimely death in March 1981, put John’s involvement in the project on hold. I decided to continue and enrolled in a PhD at UNE to provide structure.

At this time my focus was on my grandfather. Further, John and I had both seen the biography focused on two linked threads: politics and the Country Party on one side, his public and ministerial career on the other side. Here we were influenced by the work of Don Aitkin and especially his 1969 biography of NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner and then his 1972 study of the structure and history of the NSW Country Party[47]. I had found both very convincing from my own knowledge of the Party.

At this point, I want to return briefly to one of my earlier themes, the role of New England’s universities in preserving and promoting the culture and creativity of New England, as well as the nature of the links that bind over time and space.

Don Aitkin was a teacher’s son who was, in fact, the first student admitted to the newly established University of New England in 1954 simply because his name began with an A![48] Those drawing on his work were, respectively, the sons of an Armidale storekeeper and the first academic to arrive at the University College in 1938. Three very different people with different experiences, yet linked by history and shared interests.

Don’s own interests took him away from his initial political focus into a very successful career as a political scientist and senior university administrator. However, in 2005 he returned to his original roots in What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia.[49]. This is a remarkably good book that explores social change in Australia through the prism set by the Armidale High School Leaving Certificate class of 1953.

This book was a godsend from my viewpoint. I had been struggling with a way to structure the history of New England from the 1967 plebiscite loss through to the end of the twentieth century. This was a period of fundamental change within New England that saw the decline not just of many of the ideas and institutions that had given the area its character, not just in the relative power and influence of the area, but also of the very idea of New England itself. What was it all for? gave me something of a structure for looking at the process of change in a controllable way. So, just as it had been thirty years before when John Knight and I first looked at a biography of David Drummond, Don’s writing had come to my aid in providing an initial starting point.

I said an initial starting point, because a very odd thing had happened in the writing of Drummond’s biography. As I started detailed research and writing, I found that the only way to understand him lay in his role as a regional politician. After his troubled childhood and his sometimes harsh experiences as a ward of the state, it was Drummond’s arrival in Armidale in 1907 as a seventeen year old farm labourer that really marked the start of his life because, from this point, the troubled youth started to achieve the successes that would make him a leading politician and education minister. In so doing, his identification with the North came to be a central feature of his beliefs. I also found that some of the arguments that he and others used to justify separation and that I had really thought of as political debating points, actually now rang true from my own experience as a senior policy adviser.

All this led me to restructure the thesis. Instead of focusing on the Country Party and Drummond’s public career as central, the North, the history of the North and Drummond’s love for the North became central. This shift was to cause me considerable marking problems, problems that became something of a cause celebre within the University and that led me finally to walk away from the PhD. That is old history now. For present purposes, it was at this time that I decided that I must write a proper history of the broader New England because of the need, as I saw it, to present and preserve a slice of the past that I considered to be important.


In concluding, I have tried to give you just a taste of New England’s history through the frame set by my own experiences. That history has been constantly re-shaped by the interaction between local conditions and broader forces including economic and demographic change in ways that are not always clear or self-evident. One of the advantages of taking a broader area such as New England is that it can be easier to see these interactions than it is at local, narrow regional or state or national level.

Take Federation as an example. If you look at writing in this area, you will see that the primary focus has been on the political and national impacts of Federation. Yet Federation was also an economic decision, the creation of a customs union behind protective walls that rose with time. This meant that Federation redistributed income and economic activity in quite differential ways across the new nation, depending upon whether economic activity serviced a local or global marketplace. We can see this clearly in New England, for the industrial interests of the lower Hunter and some farming areas benefited, whereas other areas were disadvantaged, providing one driver for the re-emergence of separatist feeling.

Or take Aboriginal New England. Why did the Bundjalung, Gumbangirr and Dainggatti peoples retain more of their languages than Aboriginal peoples in other parts of New England? Was it just a matter of relative population size, or was it the way in which differential development allowed for what we can think of as refuge areas?

I will finish here. I hope that I have interested you in the history of the broader New England.

[1] Paper delivered by Jim Belshaw to the University of New England’s Classics and History Seminar Series, Armidale Friday 19 March 2010.

[2] http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com

[3] Mathew Jordan’s A Spirit of True Learning: the Jubilee History of the University of New England (University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2004) pp 187-190 discusses the room visiting issue. However, the editor of Neucleus quoted was Winton, not Winston, Bates. Winton was in fact co-editor; I was the second editor with Winton. Like so many UNE alumni, Winton went onto a distinguished career, becoming a Commissioner with the Productivity Commission.

[4] J D Belshaw, David Henry Drummond 1890-1930: The formative years, Armidale and District Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, No 22, March 1979, pp147-160. For further detail, see J D Belshaw, Decentralisation, Development and Decent Government: the life and times of David Henry Drummond, 1890-1942, PhD thesis, University of New England 1983.

[5] John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999, p17. Unless otherwise cited, material on the history of the study of Australian prehistory is drawn from this book, pp 1-17

[6] Citation, Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology 2003, Australian Archaeological Association, http://www.australianarchaeologicalassociation.com.au/isabel_mcbryde accessed on-line 21 February 2009.

[7] J. Belshaw, The Economic Base of Aboriginal Life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth Century, BA (Hons) thesis, UNE, 1966.

[8] New States: Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (H.S. Nicholas) Respecting Areas in the State of New South Wales suitable for Self-Government as States in the Commonwealth of Australia and as to the areas in the said State in which Referenda should be taken to ascertain the opinions of the Electors on any question in connection with the establishment of New States, together with maps, (Nicholas Commission) Government Printer, Sydney, 1935.

[9] The work of B D Graham, for example, on the formation of the Australian Country Parties (The Political Strategies of the Australian County Parties from their origins until 1929, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1958; The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, Australian National University Press, Canberra 1966) draws out quite clearly the way in which ideas about the need for, role of and structure of Country Parties varied in geographical terms.

In similar vein, Don Aitkin’s work on the NSW Country Party (see for example D A Aitkin, The Colonel: A Political Biography of Sir Michael Bruxner, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1969; The Country Party in New South Wales: a study of organisation and survival, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972) provides examples of geographical variation across NSW.

At regional level, High Lean Country (Alan Atkinson, J S Ryan, Iain Davidson and Andrew Piper (eds), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2006) point to a number of specific intellectual contributions made through the University of New England, while John Ryan’s many publications also discuss thought, attitudes and the contribution made.

[10] E Page and others (eds), Australia Subdivided, The First New State, Examiner Printing Works, Glen Innes, 1920, p10.

[11] The 1938 Australian Year Book uses the 1933 census data. Armidale’s population was then 6,794. Accessed on-line 24 February 2009.

[12] Robert Barnard’s first detective novel, Death of an Old Goat (the Crime Club, London 1974) provides a funny, somewhat malicious and satirical account of social structures in Armidale during the 1960s. While somewhat later, it still provides a guide to both structures and responses. However, it is important to recognize that social structures and associated attitudes varied greatly across New England. These variations affected, among other things, approaches to cooperative actions.

[13] John Ferry, Colonial Armidale, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999.

[14] As an example, rivalry between coastal and tablelands towns made it very difficult to establish long desired west-east rail links because nobody could agree on routes.

[15] Drummond’s description of the early days of the university movement, (D H Drummond, A University is Born: The Story of the Founding of the University College of New England, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1959), shows clearly how this affected the movement. As an example (p5), the deputation that met the NSW Minister of Education in August 1924 to plead the case for local university education was led by the Rev. Canon Archdall, M.A, Headmaster of The Armidale School. He was supported by the Mayor, Morgan Stephens, by Mr J Cornforth, M.A., Brother Jerome as Principal of the De La Salle College and Mr F Cuthbert, M.A, Headmaster of the Armidale High School. In academic terms this was, and this is the reason Drummond listed all their qualifications, quite a high powered group for such a small city.

[16] George Farwell, Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty, Angus & Robertson; Sydney 1983.

[17] Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century, Michael O’Rourke, Griffith 1997, pp33-38.

[18] Holmes, Frank. 'Belshaw, Horace 1898 - 1962', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/, accessed 2 March 2010.

[19] Keith Leopold was a member of the first student intake at the New England University College. In his memoir (Keith Leopold, edited by J S Ryan, Came to Booloominbah: A Country Scholar’s Progress 1938-1942, The University of New England Press, Armidale 1998), Keith suggests (p17) that support for the new College was not as widespread as its founders might have liked: for the most part, he wrote, the idea of a university college in Armidale met with indifference or even hostility. This was not helped by the fact that the College opened with male and female students sharing the same building, something then unique in Australia.

[20] Leopold, p17.

[21] The 1957 appointment of Russell Ward as lecturer in history provides an interesting example. Ward’s previous membership of the Communist Party had led to him being effectively blackballed. Yet he was now appointed to what was regarded as a conservative institution and indeed the only university in Australia whose staff and students tended to vote Country Party.

[22] Cited by John Ryan, Leopold, ibid.

[23] The material that follows on UNE theses is drawn partly from the list of UNE postgraduate thesis (http://www.une.edu.au/archaeology/theses.php accessed February 2007) supplemented by my personal knowledge. In addition to the thesis in the archaeology list, there were also theses now classified as history. Isabel herself left Armidale in 1973, but the work continued.

[24] Isabel McBryde, An archaeology survey of the New England Region, NSW, PhD thesis, University of New England, 1967.

[25] Isabel McBryde, Aboriginal prehistory in New England: an archaeological survey of northeastern New South Wales, Sydney University, 1974.

[26] Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

[27] Australian Institute if Aboriginal Studies 1972.

[28] Ibid.

[29] It is hard today with mass university education to realize the importance of this. One of the weaknesses in Mathew Jordan’s A Spirit of True Learning (op cit) is that he does not fully bring this out so far as UNE was concerned. The contribution needs to be assessed not just across disciplines, but also in university extension work and the activism of key individuals. Because this is my second criticism of Mathew’s book, I should note that I found it a valuable work.

[30] Wendy Beck, Aboriginal Archaeology, High Lean Country, op cit, pp 88-97

[31] This has relevance to the scope of any history of the broader New England, for the first part of such a history has to include geographic areas now included in Queensland.

[32] Op cit pp 89-91.

[33] Jim Belshaw, History of the New England New State Movement 2 - defining New England, New England’s History Blog, http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com/2010/02/history-of-new-england-new-state_04.html, 4 February 2010. Just as there were north-south and east-west linkages in Aboriginal New England, so there were in European New England. These axis were very important in determining, among other things, the pattern of political life.

[34] High Lean Country, p90

[35] Jim Belshaw, Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines, New England Australia Blog, http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/2007/01/malcolm-calley-anthropolgy-and.html, 27 January 2007.

[36] The material on the Gamillaraay is drawn from Peter K Austin, The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research, SOAS, University of London, 2006, accessed on-line 17 December 2008.

[37] John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999 pp 69-75; and Peter K Austin, Article MS 1711 Countries and language – Australia, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics ELL2, pp 2-9.. Accessed on line 19 August 2009

[38] In using the term political boundaries I am not implying formal structures of the type associated with, for example, nation states. A closer analogy would be the type of relationships found in mediaeval Europe, in Scandinavia or indeed in Homer’s Greece. The 18th century Kamilaroi war leader the Red Kangaroo provides an interesting case study. Having taken control from the previous elders, he had built the Gunnedah mob up into a strong force by absorbing other groups. Raids from the Bundarra mob on the Goonoo Goonoo and Manaella mobs led them to seek support from the Red Kangaroo. The Red Kangaroo argued that support should be provided because the power of the Bundarra mob posed a threat. A joint war party was formed that defeated the Bundarra group. The case shows how political alliances were formed and used in Aboriginal Australia. (Michael O’Rourke, “Sung for Generations”, published by the author, Canberra 2005, pp 306-311).

[39] Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century, Michael O’Rourke, Griffith 1997 especially pp 26-32.

[40] NSW Aboriginal Housing Office web site accessed 6 October 2009. The map is, I think, originally drawn from the distribution of Aboriginal languages across NSW as defined in Horton, David, general editor The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, society and culture, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra : 1994.

[41] Melbourne Age, 2 January 2007. I covered this story in two posts on the New England Australia blog: Githabul People achieve Native title deal, 2 January 2007, http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/2007/01/githabul-people-achieve-native-title.html; Githabul people win land title recognition, 30 November 2007, http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com/2007/11/githabul-people-win-land-title.html.

[42] Ibid p78

[43] J. Belshaw, The Economic Base of Aboriginal Life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth Century, BA (Hons) thesis, UNE, 1966; add 1978

[44] Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands, op cit, pp33-38.

[45] Australian Indigenous Language Date Base (AUSTLANG), Awabakal, http://austlang.aiatsis.gov.au/main.php accessed 20 October 2009. AUSTLANG with its on-line search facility is an extremely useful introductory tool for anyone interested in the distribution of Aboriginal language groups.

[46] Biographical material on John Knight is drawn from the Senate Hansard, Wednesday, 4 March 1981, p 303, accessed on-line 5 March 2009.

[47] D A Aitkin, The Colonel: A Political Biography of Sir Michael Bruxner, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1969; The Country Party in New South Wales: a study of organisation and survival, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972.

[48] Don Aitkin, UNE's first student, awarded honorary degree, University of New England media release, 11 October 2004, accessed on-line 5 March 2009, http://www.une.edu.au/news/archives/000085.html

[49] Don Aitkin, What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005.

No comments: